Spare a thought for aspic. Here’s a food, made from gelatinised consommé, that was once the height of sophistication, but has now fallen spectacularly out of fashion. A cautionary tale, aspic has lately become little more than a horror used to scare millennials.
Or so you might think. Because all it takes these days is for one influential chef or celebrity dietitian to reclaim this down-at-heel dish, with talk of its health benefits and flavour, and we’re all tucking into platefuls of jellied eels, that cockney classic that also happens to be rich in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins A and B12, and an excellent source of collagen. Come to think of it, why aren’t we all eating jellied eels?
It’s a tale of fickle times. A food that was once fashionable falls from grace, then makes a miraculous comeback, rediscovered and rebooted by some tastemaker at the top of the food chain. (A director like Quentin Tarantino fulfils a similar role in Hollywood, able to revive the fortunes of actors simply by casting them in his films.) A similar turnaround befell the avocado. Kale got the makeover to end all makeovers. Courgettes transitioned into spaghetti, thanks to the spiralizer. Mushrooms materialised in coffee. And staples of Asian cuisine – kimchi and turmeric – were heralded in the west as “superfoods”, to a fair amount of eye rolling in Asia, where such things have been consumed for centuries.
Why do these foods capture our imagination? Partly because they answer a pressing contemporary need. The vegan-led push for meat substitutes, for example, has led to the second coming of jackfruit, whose flesh resembles the texture of pulled pork. In other cases, it comes down to how a food looks, as exemplified by sandos, the meticulously de-crusted, surgically cross-sectioned Japanese sandwiches that are everywhere on Instagram, and ready to eat in the real world at places like Tata Eatery’s Tou on Oxford Street.
For fashionistas and beauty and health faddists, other factors come into play. These include how compatible a food is with a dietary regimen (eg keto, paleo, FODMAP); a food’s properties as an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory or anticarcinogen; and how rich a source of minerals and vitamins it is (or in layman’s terms, how glossy and glowy it makes one’s hair and skin look). The big question here is how much taste comes into it, if it does at all. Because, let’s face it, turmeric is no picnic on the taste buds, and avocados outside the Americas are largely texture over flavour.
At this point, let me bring in Naomi Campbell. If, like me, you subscribe to the supermodel’s YouTube channel (and if you don’t, you must, if only to see how one of the world’s most frequent flyers wards off colds by exhaustively disinfecting her cabin cubicle with antibacterial wipes), then you might have seen a video of her shopping at Whole Foods Market. “I know you guys want to know what I eat” reads the caption, and absolutely we do. And thus, we find ourselves watching her stalk the aisles, in a pair of oversized sunglasses, looking for anything she can eat. “As you get older, your system changes,” she explains. “I found out no gluten, no wheat, no dairy. I’m like, what the f*** am I going to eat? All my comfort food just went down the drain and I’m sad.”
We can certainly sympathise. All too often these days eating has become an exercise in abstention, restriction and avoidance. And shopping for food within punitive guidelines is really no fun.
But Whole Foods may have the answer. Alongside the banana flour, sweet-potato nectar and boiled eggs (remember them?) as refrigerated snacks that it’s already giving the big push to this year is one food that ticks all the boxes, in being free of everything you could possibly want it to be free of. Seed butters, in particular the lesser-known varieties made from pumpkin and watermelon seed, are a great source of iron, zinc, magnesium and unsaturated fats, among other goodies. These seeds also require significantly less water to cultivate than almonds, walnuts or pistachios, making them a boon for the planet as well as us.
But how on earth does anyone get excited about a seed butter? Well, for a start, a butter is an improvement on the seeds themselves, which in my experience lack any of the meaty traction of nuts and are too much like bird food to be satisfying. Anything that spreads and drips has to be better, surely? Plus, you daren’t even smile after eating a handful of seeds, for fear that your mouth looks like a car crash.
Pumpkin and watermelon seed butters not only feed a growing interest among the vegan-curious (and who isn’t at least a little bit curious?) in all things plant-based, but they also answer a call for novelty in a market that already includes a host of other spreads. Tellingly, a brand like 88 Acres (for orders outside the US, email firstname.lastname@example.org) specialises in butters derived from pumpkin, watermelon and sunflower seeds, and makes a virtue of nurturing an “inclusive food community” with its products, as if our myriad dietary restrictions have driven a wedge between us, like Brexit, and these seeds are the food to bring us together. To that end, its website notes all the ingredients its butters are free from, which reads like a litany of modern-day ills: “Tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, gluten, soy, dairy, sesame, egg, fish, shellfish, mustard, sulphites, corn, genetically modified ingredients, palm oil, artificial preservatives, artificial sweeteners, artificial or synthetic fibres, and isolated proteins.”
88 Acres also sells 33g pouches of each butter for snacking and sampling, which means you won’t be left with a jar of something you were curious to try but then couldn’t stand and now have to palm off on a friend or spoon into the waste-disposal unit. Other brands, please take note.
Another US producer, Dastony (widely available online), offers raw, organic, stoneground versions of seed butters, including sesame, sprouted pumpkin and watermelon. However, I wouldn’t recommend you eat these unadulterated. The watermelon seed butter has the gloopiness and grip of pouring cement and will dry your mouth out quicker than a Jacob’s cracker. Add agave syrup or honey on bread, or be inspired by the roasted watermelon seed version from 88 Acres, which mixes in tapioca starch and a little cane sugar, giving it the moreish consistency of cake mix. Otherwise, use it like tahini, which it resembles in taste, to make sesame-free hummus or a delicious dressing with olive oil and sumac to drizzle over roasted vegetables. Pumpkin seed butter works wonders in pesto or simply mixed into stir-fries (Sun & Seed, which is available at Planet Organic, also does a raw version).
For anyone still not convinced, there’s another spread gaining traction that is definitely worth a try. Kaya is the criminally sweet southeast-Asian coconut pandan butter that I had on toast for breakfast at Yotam Ottolenghi’s Nopi in London not long ago. As far as spreads go, it’s at the opposite end of the health spectrum to seed butters, but you know what? After being so fashionably good, it’s good to be this fashionably bad.